From fact to fiction

M.J. Carter on making the change from writing non-fiction to historical thrillers

Posted · 1 February 2015

If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I saw myself writing fiction, the answer would have been a resounding no. I was a biographer starting out on my second book: The Three Emperors, a triple biography of the three cousins, George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the lead up to World War One. That book took me over five years. The previous one, a biography of Anthony Blunt, had taken me seven. But after The Three Emperors came out in 2010, I wasn’t ready to submerge myself in another big non-fiction tome. I longed to do something breezier, something which would allow me to stretch a little, something for which I wouldn’t have to check every fact before I wrote every half-sentence: a different kind of writing, a new learning curve.

I decided I was ready to write a thriller.

For some years I’d been toying with the idea of a detective, a working class autodidact and lone sceptic. I knew exactly where I wanted to put him: in the 1840s, the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. It was a fascinating decade, tumultuous and transformatory, during which the chaotic, feudal, morally ambivalent pre-modern Georgian world gave way to the uptight, pious, constrained and indisputably more modern Victorian world.

I’d also been toying with the idea of writing about the Thugs – the Indian roadside bandits who befriended unwary travellers on the roads of India, then strangled and robbed them – and the man who crushed and chronicled them, the British soldier turned administrator, William Sleeman. It was Sleeman’s accounts of the Thugs that thrilled British audiences in the 1830s and brought the word into English. (It originally comes from the sanskrit ‘sthag’ meaning to deceive or trick.) The story was extraordinary. At one time it was claimed that the Thugs had killed over a million people (estimates today range between 50,000 and 200,000, still a massive number). They were said to be a secret cult devoted to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, murdering in her name. It also appeared that the Thugs were sometimes offered protection by native rulers, in return for a share of the spoils.

William Sleeman was an intriguing man too. A brilliant linguist and exceptional administrator, he was also the first man in India to identify and excavate fossils in the 1820s; and the first to collect stories of wolf-children, which later inspired Kipling to write The Jungle Book. In order to crush the Thugs he developed a series of untried detective techniques: lists of suspects with aliases and distinguishing features, family trees that showed how gangs were linked, and maps showing where corpses were buried and the routes that certain gangs followed.

What clinched the subject of the Thugs for me, however, was the suggestion made by some Indian and British historians since the 1970s, that the Thugs had never existed – or at least not as Sleeman had described them. That they had actually been a colonial bogey, blown up by the British, both fascinatingly other, and also an all-too-useful justification for the extension of British rule. They perfectly demonstrated the ‘evils’ of Hinduism, that India was not fit to rule itself, and that it needed moral guidance from, who else? The British. The question is still hotly debated; hard to prove one way or the other.

There were darker stories about Sleeman too: that he had hung Thugs from mango trees along the 250 mile road from Mirzapur to Jubbulpur; that he had probably used torture to extract confessions; that Thug trials were conducted in English so the defendants could not understand what was going on, and in territorial courts that required a lower burden of proof than elsewhere in India.

So I decided to yoke my two starting points together, and start my sceptical detective in India in the late 1830s, where he had become a skilled linguist, serving in the armies of the East India Company. I had a set-up. Then came the writing. I felt reasonably confident about being able to construct a backdrop to my story: one of the things I like about good detective fiction is that it often gives you a world: Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh; Stieg Larsson’s cyber-hackers; C.J. Sansom’s Tudor Court. As a writer of non-fiction I tried to conjure places and times as vividly as possible. I even felt I had a handle on character: biography is all about trying to tease out the nuances and subtext of a personality and get it on the page.

The killer was the plotting and how actually to write it. I had a start and an end of sorts and vast great holes all the way through. As for writing it, should I be an omniscient narrator, or tell it in the first person?

I went to my husband, who is a novelist, for help. He gave me two excellent pieces of advice. One was to write as compete a plan as possible: I didn’t manage this as well as I would have liked, largely because I didn’t really know what I was doing and hoped I would fix it along the way. This cost me a lot in time and perspiration. But, I’m currently writing a sequel and like to think I’ve got better at it. The second piece of advice was to write a first person narrative – while you have to create a credible and vivid voice, it’s more straightforward to create one point of view and a coherent tone, and it’s easier to work out what the character does and doesn’t know, and therefore what the reader can know.

Who should my narrator be? My detective knew all about India; I really didn’t. I felt the same about writing from an Indian point of view: I had just read Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful Sea of Poppies, set during the same period as my book, and populated with marvellous characters, and knew I could not rival it. I knew, however, that I could write as a clueless newcomer, seeing India for the first time – rather like me. Thus my second protagonist came into being, his character came out of a structural necessity, and then amazingly (to me at least), began to take form: naive, stupidly brave, good-natured, full of the prejudices of the day.

Writing turned up all kinds of issues I hadn’t expected. In the early drafts I felt a bit like those early sailors frightened of going out of sight of land. I clung to my history, stuffing great wedges of it into my prose. But with each successive draft I pushed a bit further out, cutting a bit more fact, putting in a bit more plot. Other things I found extraordinarily difficult: getting my characters from one bit of the story to another. Occasionally I’d go and see my husband, ‘They’re here,’ I’d say plaintively, ‘how do I get them to there?

The other thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time standing up and sitting down, and walking in and out of rooms. They were always turning around. This does not come up a lot in non-fiction. Apparently it’s a common novice fiction-writer’s mistake – feeling you have describe everything that happens including the boring bits, in the interests of continuity. Actually you don’t. That’s the great thing about fiction: you’re really in charge.

Therein lies the great pleasure I discovered writing my first thriller. It was a bit terrifying, but also wonderfully liberating – after years of having to check every half-sentence – simply to be able to make stuff up.